King Edward Point
South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic
“I say, sir,” the South Georgian governor's junior assistant called out from the residence office. “You know your funny Norwegian chap out on Skarvsten Island, your penguin-watcher or what have you?”
“Dane,” Bunning corrected him. “And he’s not my chap.” He took a quick swallow of his coffee, which was wretchedly weak. The junior assistant had only just been sent down to him from Whitehall, as a sort of punishment, Bunning suspected; he had proved to be terrible in nearly every way so far. Bunning took another unpleasant swig to cover his irritation. “Why, why do you mention him?” he remembered to ask.
“Only he seems to have gone even funnier,” the junior assistant drawled, in his terrible nasal accent. “Sending a lot of nonsense out over the wire.”
Bunning frowned and came into the office. “What sort of nonsense?”
“Well, a lot of Vs, it seems, mainly. Since seven this morning, it’s been nothing but V, V, V, V. I radioed back requesting clarification and got back, you guessed it, yet another mysterious V. Is he celebrating some sort of famous penguin victory, do you suppose?”
“Oh, you idiot.” Bunning set down his coffee too hard. It splashed right over his cuff, and he shook his wet hand as he hurried off to go and fetch his cold-weather gear.
“I say!” the junior governor’s assistant whined. “That’s hardly—”
“Didn’t mean you, naturally,” Bunning told him, pulling on a mitten with his teeth and grabbing the first aid kit from its shelf over the door. “Although.”
“Never mind. Keep an ear out for another message from Skarvsten, will you; I should be arriving by…” he checked his watch. “Eleven hundred hours. I’ll be wanting coffee when I get back, I shouldn't wonder—proper coffee. Get the senior assistant to make it.”
“I say!” the junior governor’s assistant protested, but Bunning was already out the door, whisking the half-full decanter of brandy from the sideboard and tucking it under his arm as he went.
It took just under two hours for the motor launch to get from the residence at King Edward Point to the disputed Skarvsten/Goodwill islands, and Bunning spent most of the journey cursing and fighting the increasing waves. A fine storm seemed to be blowing up from the southeast. He was mad to have gone tearing off like this. The Vs had undoubtedly been meant as an obscure joke of some kind, and he’d find Søndergaard waving and beaming at him from the door to his hide like a delighted ginger-haired lamppost. Bunning looked forward to the relieved dressing-down he would give him; the Søndergaard of his imagining looked more suitably cowed and abashed each time he rehearsed it.
No one popped out to greet the sound of the launch as it approached, though, and the only answer to Bunning’s cross hallooing was a chorus of rawks and screes. The little Lancelot penguins clustered excitedly around him as he hauled his craft up onto the rocky shore, and then followed him right up the path, shrieking and flapping. Bunning felt as though he were leading a miniature smelly parade.
“Søndergaard!” Bunning called out, rapping smartly on the door to the hut. “Permission to—oh, blast it, I’m coming in.” He hesitated, heard no response, and finally pushed the unresisting door open a crack and stuck his head in. “Søndergaard?”
It was so dim that he couldn’t see a thing, and it took his eyes a long minute to adjust. The familiar aroma of the hide wafted out at him and struck Bunning with a wave of something like homesickness. Søndergaard’s cluttered and cramped living space really had no right to smell as pleasant as it did. It smelled of carbolic soap (the man was fastidiously clean, despite the clutter) and heating oil and the carefully hoarded curry spice that he used in his seaweedy stews. It also smelled chilly and a bit off today, though, in a way that was viscerally alarming. Bunning squinted toward the corner that he knew to be the sleeping area.
“Søndergaard?” he said again, hushed. “Are you at home? Or not?”
Something brushed Bunning’s leg, and he startled: a penguin had just slipped past him around the edge of the door and darted inside.
“Gå væk, Jackie Cooper,” said a voice right next to his feet, and Bunning startled again and leapt back. It had come from a dark huddled mound in front of the cold, unlit stove, where the little penguin was busily rooting and flapping, making small distressed-sounding grawks and arks.
“Good lord,” said Bunning. “Søndergaard? What on earth?”
“Door,” Søndergaard said, in a strained and whispery rasp.
“Door. Shut the door, please, you’re letting in the cold. You might take Jackie Cooper out as well; he knows he’s not allowed in.”
Bunning, bewildered, found himself bending over and picking up the small creature, which complained and flapped mightily in his arms. He managed, somehow, not to drop it until he’d successfully lifted it over to the open doorway and deposited it outside. “Sorry, old chap,” he apologised, and quickly shut the door in the penguin’s face.
“Now,” he said decisively to the mound of eiderdown at his feet. “What’s befallen you, eh?”
It transpired that Søndergaard had gone down with an attack of malaria: “Bit of a souvenir, you know, of my time in Java—it comes and goes, nothing to trouble about—” (“Nothing,” Bunning said drily. “Yes, nothing at all, yes, I can see that.”) He had no recollection of telegraphing a distress call or anything else out over the wire, which alarmed Bunning even more than the obvious state of him.
“You’ll have to come back in the launch with me,” Bunning said, after he’d lit the lamps and refilled the oil stove and got Søndergaard carefully propped up in front of it with a mug of well-brandied tea. The Dane’s hands shook so that it slopped everywhere as he tried to raise it to his lips, and Bunning tutted and took it away from him again. “We’ve nothing but a skeleton crew over at the residence, this time of year, but there is an old infirmary that at least has proper beds and heat, and...indoor plumbing, you know, and a medical officer who’s not entirely useless—no, don’t shake your head at me—”
Søndergaard wasn’t just shaking his head, he was quaking all over. “No,” he said, very sharply. “No, absolutely not, it is out of the question. No.”
“But look here,” Bunning objected, gesturing helplessly at the tiny dwelling, at Søndergaard himself, at the entire situation.
“No, my friend.” Søndergaard shut his eyes and cocooned himself into his eiderdown. “I’m sorry, but no. None of your infirmary for me. The Dane-Hammer itself would not be sufficient to persuade me.”
There had been an infirmary in Java, Bunning supposed, or some nightmarish facsimile of one; no doubt he was treading on thin ice. He straightened up and looked thoughtfully out of the hide’s observation window at the stone-coloured sky, the rising swells crashing against the island’s shore. The penguins were now clustered in a tight huddle, apparently battening themselves down for the duration.
“Well,” said Bunning. “I suppose that’s for the best, really. May I use your radio?”
“I haven’t got a radio. That one is yours.”
“Fair enough. May I use my radio?” Without waiting for an answer, Bunning located the ancient device and began winding it up. It had been some time since he’d had to use one himself, but he’d done his time as a junior assistant in the Foreign Office, transmitting and receiving countless messages; it did come back.
“What are you saying to your beastly residence?” Søndergaard demanded.
“I’m telling the junior governor’s assistant not to bother about the coffee,” Bunning said. “Nasty storm blowing up, don’t know if you’d noticed; looks as if there’s a good chance I’ll be stuck here overnight.”
“I don’t need looking after!”
“Obviously not.” The hide was warming up again at last. Bunning hung his coat on one of the pegs by the door, then sat down and made himself comfortable in front of the stove alongside Søndergaard. “How do your penguins get on in this sort of weather? Aren’t you afraid they’ll...I don’t know, blow away, or some such thing?” He picked up the mug of tea and brandy and placed it back in Søndergaard’s hands, keeping his own firmly wrapped around them until he was sure he wouldn’t drop it.
Søndergaard sighed and took a cautious taste of the brew, and then another. “Oh,” he said at last. “The penguins will manage. They generally do.”
“Quite a lot fewer of the chaps than there were the last time I stopped by, though, aren’t there?”
“Well, they migrate, you know, this time of year. Most of them. This is their breeding ground; they raise their chicks here, and then off they toodle—to warmer waters, I suppose, where the feeding is better.”
He still sounded shaky and pale, and Bunning reached for the brandy to top off Søndergaard’s mug. “What about the ones still hanging about, then? Why haven’t they gone off on holiday?”
“Ah, well…” Søndergaard raised the mug to his lips again and took another careful swallow or two. “I suppose that’s my fault. I’d been feeding them a bit, you see; just my favourites of them, now and then—scraps, fish guts—I didn’t realise the harm it would do until it was too late. And now they seem to be under the impression that they are pets.”
Bunning wasn’t sure whether to be shocked or amused. “You don’t say.”
“I do say. Terrible, I know. But I think they’ll be able to make it through the winter here, if it’s not a difficult one. Last year...was a difficult one.”
“So you’ve told me, yes.” It would be Bunning’s first winter on South Georgia; he wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. “Spent the worst of it on a Norwegian whaler that picked you up, wasn’t it? Were you...thinking you might do that again? You’ve never said.”
Søndergaard shuddered deeply, and Bunning reached out to steady his hands on the mug again. “Not if I can possibly avoid it. Surely this winter won’t be so bad. Besides, I have the penguins to look after now. I feel responsible.”
“Yes,” Bunning said. He cast an uneasy glance at Søndergaard’s cupboard with its well-stocked shelves of English tins. “One does, doesn’t one?” He didn’t know which he disliked more: the thought of his friend shivering through the dark winter months in this lonely shelter, or the idea of him packed miserably away on a whaling ship, penguinless, leaving Bunning to the company of his tiresome subalterns. “Drink that up,” he said crossly, nodding to the mug. He got up to inspect Søndergaard’s cooking area more closely. “When did you last eat anything?”
“You British,” Søndergaard said. “So officious, such meddlers,” but he sounded a bit brighter now, and he sipped obediently from his mug. “I don’t recall. There are some Oxo cubes left, I believe; I could probably manage a bit of broth. And you needn’t worry about accidentally domesticating me. I am utterly untamable—a lone Antarctic wolf.”
“There are no wolves in the Antarctic,” Bunning pointed out.
“I know. I’m the only one.”
“Hmm. Much more of a lone Antarctic ferret, if you ask me. Possibly an otter of some sort. Finish your tea.”
Søndergaard perked up noticeably after finishing his spiked tea and then a mug of broth. They passed the afternoon companionably enough, bantering mildly over chess and listening to the wind rise and the waves crash outside. Bunning glanced up at the window from time to time and wondered how the penguins were faring, but decided he’d better not mention it. Then he looked across the chessboard and found Søndergaard’s gaze keenly fixed on him.
“They shelter in amongst the rocks,” Søndergaard told him. “I’ve built them a sort of windbreak. I did try inviting them in once, during the first bad storm of the year.”
“In here? All of them? Good lord. How did that go?”
“Horribly. Far beyond my worst imaginings! I’ve only just got the place fit to be seen again. It required a great deal of bleach.”
“Yes, I imagine it would.” Bunning tried not to smile at the image of Søndergaard beset by the small feathered army: shooing them out of his bed, breaking up penguin quarrels and mopping up guano and trying to keep them from swallowing his chessmen, clutching his hair and cursing in Danish over the incessant flappings and screechings.
“I assure you, there was nothing amusing about it,” Søndergaard said crossly, and Bunning coughed and schooled his expression.
“Certainly not. Anyway, lesson learned, eh? And you’re all back in order now.” It really was cosy in the little hut. The oil stove heated up the place admirably, and the walls hardly creaked in the battering gusts of wind. Bunning was guiltily grateful to be here and not in the cheerless residence. “You do keep house remarkably well out here,” he conceded, looking around at the colourful wall hangings that insulated the place, the overstuffed little bookshelf with penguin sketches tacked to its sides, the warm glow of the oil lamps and stove.
“Yes, I know,” Søndergaard said. He frowned down at the chessboard, ducking his chin as if to avoid taking the compliment head on.
Bunning had been hoping that perhaps he was over the worst of his bout of illness and already on the mend, but as darkness descended and the sounds of the storm intensified, he noticed that Søndergaard was playing very badly all of a sudden, hesitating over his moves for an unusually long time. He reached clumsily for a rockhopper and picked it up, gave it a glassy, puzzled stare, then put it down again and passed a shaky hand over his eyes. “Undskyld,” he said. “Please, excuse me. I am...not right.”
Bunning reached over and touched his hand, which was hot and trembling. Søndergaard didn’t pull away, but shut his eyes and held himself very still. “Perhaps you’d better lie down for a bit, eh?” Bunning said gently. “Is there any—I’ve brought a kit, it’s got aspirin, if you need—”
“I have tablets,” Søndergaard said, still not moving. “Chloro-something. I hate them. Bad dreams.”
“Well,” said Bunning. “Nothing else for it, I suppose. Come along,” he added, getting to his feet, and then tugged his friend carefully upright.
Søndergaard swayed against him, allowing Bunning to support most of the slight weight of him and guide him over to his bed. It was the most physical contact they’d ever had, more than Bunning had had with anyone in more time than he cared to remember, very nearly an embrace—he found himself rather shocked by the sensation of another human’s body pressed against his own, but he put it out of his mind and focused on fetching the eiderdown, tucking it around Søndergaard, locating the chloroquine tablets and a cup of water.
“Thank you,” Søndergaard said, looking up at him gravely from his nest once he’d swallowed the dose. “They make me impressively sick, in addition to the nightmares—there’s a basin here somewhere. I believe I managed to clean it out properly after the last round. Are you sure you’d rather not try to flee back to civilisation in your little launch? You might still be able to outrun the storm.”
Bunning smiled. “Far too late for that. I don’t mind.” He didn’t, either, apart from being a bit worried in case Søndergaard turned much worse. “You won’t find me squeamish. I was in the war, too, you know—a different one from yours, certainly, but it wasn’t very...civilised. I’ll tell you about it some time.”
“Tell me now,” Søndergaard suggested, reaching up and tugging lightly on Bunning’s sleeve. “Sit here, on the floor. We’ve got time, surely. I would appreciate the distraction.”
Bunning lowered himself to the ground, wincing—he wasn’t a young man any more—and leant back against the edge of the bed. “Well,” he said. “You should try to sleep, though, shouldn’t you?”
“It will put me to sleep. Other people’s war stories are always incredibly boring.” Søndergaard patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. “Go on.”
“It wasn’t this war,” Bunning said, looking into the flickering glow of the oil lamp. “This one was mainly a desk war for me. Mine was the Great War. I had my eighteenth birthday in ’17—joined up just in time to catch the end of the Flanders offensive. Passchendaele. You’ve heard of it?”
“Ah,” said Søndergaard. “Perhaps I have made an untoward request.”
“Not the most pleasant of bedtime stories, no,” Bunning agreed. “I could stick to telling you about my daring adventures as a minor attaché for the War Office, this time around. Once I nearly sustained a grievous injury from a flung paperweight.”
“Mm, yes, it was, rather.” The glass paperweight had missed him by inches when his office windows had been blown out in the Blitz, in fact, but it had been nothing like the trenches. Bunning fell silent for a bit. His skin prickled with the ghostly crawling sensation of encrusted mud, and he shuddered. “Sorry, lost my train of thought. I’m a rotten storyteller, I’m afraid.”
“No.” Bunning felt the brief heat of Søndergaard’s hand on his shoulder again. “I am sorry. I should not have asked. But it is...good, I think, to be reminded that I am not the only one who has...endured the unendurable.”
“Well,” said Bunning. “It was a long time ago. I don’t think about it much any more.”
Bunning got up and looked out at the storm. The penguins were indistinguishable from the rocks now. “Oh, well, you know, it comes and goes,” he said. “Nothing to trouble about. Get some sleep, if you can. I’ll be right here.”
It was a hellish night. The storm howled and shrieked and tore at the little hut perched there on the edge of the world, and the interior scene was hardly less tempestuous. Søndergaard slept for a few hours, then woke disorientated and burning with fever. He scolded Bunning in Danish, shivered as though he were being shaken, and, as promised, was thoroughly sick. Bunning brought the basin for him, emptied it, applied damp flannels. He murmured reassurance while Søndergaard delivered a blazing, incoherent lecture to Lauren Bacall. Eventually, the man subsided into such a deep, limp sleep that Bunning had to check more than once that he was still breathing.
All and all, between tending to his friend, worrying over him and the storm and the penguins, shoving his old war memories back into their carefully constructed boxes, and trying to find a comfortable spot to curl up on the floor, Bunning couldn’t have shut his eyes for more than a couple of hours. And yet when he awoke, he felt oddly marvellous. Perhaps it was the break in routine. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so necessary.
The noise of the storm had finally died away, and a watery grey daylight was suffusing the hide. Bunning threw off the parka he’d resorted to as a blanket, struggled to his feet, and made his way to the little attached lean-to outhouse, then crept quietly over to the kitchen area to see about coffee, or at least some very strong tea. Søndergaard was still nothing but a pitiful mound of bedding and a reddish-gold tuft. While the kettle heated up, Bunning squinted out the window at the rocky shoreline. There were the penguins—determined little buggers. He tried to size up whether the cluster they made was as big as it had been the day before.
“There should be fourteen,” Søndergaard informed him palely. “Nine adults, and five juveniles. The juveniles are the ones that appear to have gone mouldy.”
“What an apt description.” Bunning squinted harder, counting. “All present and accounted for. Hello,” he added, turning his scrutiny on Søndergaard. “How’s the fever?” He went over and laid the back of his wrist against Søndergaard’s forehead; it was warm, but no longer burning.
“I feel utterly fantastic,” Søndergaard said, sounding as pathetic as a storm-tossed mouldy penguin. But he was clear-eyed, clearly himself again, and Bunning gave a short, relieved laugh. “Tea would be most welcome, when it’s ready.”
Bunning brought him tea, and some of his harsh rye bread to dip into it, and hovered for just long enough to make sure that he was steady enough to consume it on his own. Then he announced that perhaps he’d step outside for a bit to smoke his pipe and check on his launch.
“There is a pail at the bottom of the cupboard with some scraps,” Søndergaard told him, as he pulled on his coat and boots. “If you would be so kind as to take on the feeding duties for today?”
“Hmm. Trying to make me complicit, are you?” Bunning located the covered pail, lifted its lid, and peered at the contents. “Phew! I don’t know about that, but this certainly needs to be taken outside and disposed of—I’ll just pour it out on the rocks, shall I, and if anyone happens to take advantage of it from there, well, it’s no business of mine.”
“Not too close to the hide,” Søndergaard cautioned. “And mind that Jackie Cooper doesn’t take more than his share. He’s getting much fatter than the others. You might need to hold him back at first.”
“I shall do no such thing,” said Bunning. “Cheerio.”
The cutting wind felt good, after his long night in the little hide with its present miasma of illness; good to stretch his legs, too. He didn’t have a chance to light his pipe, though, before he was beset by a clamouring horde. “Well!” Bunning told the penguins. “Not a very mannerly lot, are you? You, there, get away!” One of the little beasts, probably Jackie Cooper, was nudging at the pail, trying to knock it out of his hand.
“Don’t let them have it!” Bunning swung round to find that Søndergaard had cracked the door half open and was leaning out, eiderdown-clad and bareheaded. “Lead them closer down toward the shore first! I don’t want them to think that they can hang about here demanding their breakfast.”
“They bloody well can, and are, it appears,” Bunning called back. “Shut the door, you idiot, you’re not allowed out, by—get away, I say, you rascals—by order of the British government!”
“Of which I am still not a subject.”
“Well, you are a guest on what your country claims is British territory, are you not? Or are you hereby acknowledging that this is indeed Skarvsten Island, in which case—”
“Oh, damn your diplomacy,” Søndergaard said, and he shut the door.
Bunning raised the pail awkwardly up over his head and somehow managed to make his way down the path without kicking or tripping over the penguins. When he’d got within ten yards of the beach, he tossed the scraps onto the rocks and watched the ensuing frenzy for a while with a disgusted sort of awe. At last he lit his pipe, took in a bracing lungful of frigid air and tobacco, and went down to look at his launch.
“Ah,” said Bunning. “Well. Bugger.”
When he returned to the hut, an hour or so later, he found Søndergaard reading in bed, looking freshly scrubbed. All the detritus of his illness had been cleared away. A washtub of linens was steaming on top of the stove, and the place was once again stingingly redolent of carbolic soap.
“Good heavens,” said Bunning. “You didn’t need to clean up on my account, you know. You ought to be resting.”
“Dirt is something I do not find restful,” Søndergaard told him. “Did you enjoy the penguins?”
“Not really. I prefer penguins at a distance, I’m afraid. May I use your radio, er, my radio, again?”
“Of course. May I ask why?”
Bunning sighed. “Well. Bad news—seems you’ll be stuck with me for a while longer. The launch is inoperable.”
Søndergaard looked at him over his book. “Inoperable? In what way?”
“In the way that there’s been a bloody great whaling harpoon rammed into the side of it. Must have been tossed up by the storm. I did what I could, but it’s still not exactly seaworthy. I’ll have to get one of the lads at the residence to come and give it a tow back down to the repair yard on the mainland.”
“Oh,” said Søndergaard. “Those whalers. I do detest them. How long will it take?”
“I’ll be shocked if they manage to get a boat here before tomorrow,” Bunning admitted. “They’re not the most competent team. I’ll radio it in as urgent,” he added quickly. “I’m awfully sorry to impose again. You seem...much improved, today, and I know how you value your solitude…”
“I do value my solitude,” Søndergaard agreed with severity, and Bunning had the jarring sensation of having put a foot down wrong on a rocky path, feeling the way ahead slide out from under him. “Go on, then; the radio is in the same place you left it yesterday.”
Bunning quickly sent out his message, twice over just in case, and then he wasn’t sure what to do. He’d smoked all of his pipe tobacco, there didn’t seem to be any washing up left, and Søndergaard had retreated to his book once more and didn’t appear likely to want more chess. He cleared his throat. “Could I...are you hungry?”
Bunning was famished. “Oh.”
Søndergaard turned a page, and then, after a while, another. At last he glanced up and seemed to relent. “Help yourself, please, to anything in the cupboard. Much of it is also yours, after all.”
“Thank you,” said Bunning, too hungry to politely refuse. “I might do that.” He found himself a tin of corned beef and a fork and set to—ravenously at first, and then uncomfortably, when he looked up and saw that Søndergaard had put his book aside and was watching him with a pensive expression.
“I must apologise for having starved you,” Søndergaard said. “This is far from the hospitality you deserve.”
“Well, I didn’t come for hospitality, did I? I only came to...well, I rather foisted myself upon you, I’m afraid. What was it you said yesterday? Officious and meddling?”
“You are certainly that. But no. You came to my rescue, for which I am most grateful. And, although you are too British to say so, you must surely have regretted your decision to do so many times over last night. I’m sorry that you will be unable to make your escape as soon as you’d hoped.”
“Oh, no,” said Bunning, shocked into sincerity. “My dear fellow. You mustn’t think I minded that. I’m a poor enough nursemaid, but even so. Glad to help out. Really I am.” He’d felt, in fact, an aching tenderness toward Søndergaard in his vulnerability—he felt it still, a knot of swelling tension in his chest that didn’t seem to belong anywhere but that he didn’t know how to put down. It would wear off, he supposed, in time. Bunning had a sudden recollection of Søndergaard’s overheated body trembling against his, and the memory raced up through his senses like a flash fire. He frowned and cleared his throat and looked away.
“Yes, I know, I know.” Søndergaard’s tone indicated that he knew nothing of the sort. “Bunning, you are all diplomacy. I assure you, in any case, that you won’t be called upon for such assistance again before your own rescue arrives; these spells never last more than a day or two. You will be safe enough tonight.”
This could not stand, and Bunning scraped back his chair and came right over to the bed. “I wasn’t being diplomatic,” he said angrily. “If you think I’m the sort of man who can’t...who’d be bothered about...well, anyway, I’m not. I. Don’t. Mind.”
Søndergaard’s thin pale lips grew thinner still, and his pale eyes narrowed. “Is that Morse code for…?”
“Oh, you stupid sod.” Bunning leaned over to plant his hands on Søndergaard’s shoulders and give him a quick shake; he couldn’t help it. He sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’d look after you again tonight, or any time you needed it. I’m sure you’d do the same for me.”
“Yes, I suppose I would.” Søndergaard looked thoughtful. “I might demand more than a tin of cold hash in return, however—depending on how terrible of a patient you were. I suspect I was not a very good one.”
“Dreadful,” Bunning said absently. He brushed the back of his hand against Søndergaard’s cheek, which was looking flushed again. It made the swelling tenderness in his chest seem to contract painfully, and he got up and walked back across the room. “You still aren’t right, you know. How often do these...episodes...recur? Are you quite sure you don’t need a doctor?”
Søndergaard sighed. “Quite sure,” he said. “And not so often. A change of weather brings them on, or stress, of which I have thankfully little in my life these days. I will drink a large amount of tea today, and rest, and tomorrow all will be well.”
Bunning took this as a hint to put the kettle on again, which he was grateful enough to do.
The day turned clear and cold. Søndergaard nodded off over his book. Bunning took it upon himself to haul the laundry tub outside and wring out the clean linens before hanging them up to freeze-dry: a wretched, bone-chilling, back-breaking job. He marvelled that Søndergaard had managed to survive in these conditions on his own for so long and could still call it stress-free. The mindless labour of it was soothing, though, it was true; perhaps all in all it was a less troubled life than that of a minor government official beset by chains of command and paperwork and bewildering contradictory orders from a faraway empire.
He thought about the two wars he’d survived, and the different ways they’d broken him—differently still from the way that captivity had broken Søndergaard and then allowed him to put himself back together in his particular odd way. And yet here they both were. There was a reason, he supposed, why he’d felt such immediate sympathy for Søndergaard’s quest to exchange everything he knew for a sterile solitary confinement; hadn’t Bunning done essentially the same thing?
From time to time, as he lugged the heavy half-frozen linens around and secured them to the laundry poles Søndergaard had rigged out of driftwood, Bunning glanced over at his audience. The penguins, of course, had all come lurching and hopping over to greet him when he’d first reemerged from the hide. Most of them had eventually wandered away again when it became clear that he wasn’t up to anything edible, but several of them continued to mill about, inspecting his work with great interest, possibly critiquing it to one another. The little fat one was particularly keen, and got right underfoot more than once, even nipping at Bunning’s bootlaces.
“Go on, you devil,” Bunning said, shooing him gently away. The creatures were company of a sort for Søndergaard, he reflected, and they seemed not to have suffered overmuch in the storm. This had been a mild one, though. He worried briefly over how they would fare in a real three-day blow. The winds were much stronger here on the tiny exposed island than down in the sheltered cove of King Edward.
Lost in thought and in his awkward task, he forgot the stubborn little penguin at his feet until he had finished up and was hauling the empty washtub back inside. It took full advantage of the opening and darted between his boots the moment Bunning opened the door.
“Oh, no you don’t, you—” Still hoping not to wake Søndergaard, Bunning attempted to grab for the invader, keep hold of the tub, and shut the door silently all at the same time. He failed.
“Hello!” Søndergaard said, sitting up and looking blearily startled. “Ah, Jackie Cooper, you are indefatigable. No, my small friend. I’ll be out to see you again tomorrow.” He leant over and picked up the excited penguin, who seemed to have all sorts of things to say to him, and petted it briefly before handing it over to Bunning. Bunning took hold of it and somehow managed to wrestle the wildly flapping little thing back out of the door.
“What have you been about?” Søndergaard scowled at Bunning. “You look three-quarters frozen. And also damp. Why are you damp? This is no time for a swim.”
“Laundry,” Bunning said, his teeth chattering a bit, as he struggled with the fastenings of his heavy parka. He hadn’t realised how cold he’d been until the warmth of the hut struck him with a shock. “Needed a bit of a chore, you know—something to keep busy.”
Søndergaard got up and tugged the coat off him. “Meddling again! What did I say? Come and sit down—no, I don’t mind your boots. Here, on the bed.” He wrapped his quilt around Bunning’s shoulders and took Bunning’s hands in his warm ones, then made an exasperated sound. “Like ice. When I said I would return the favour and look after you, I didn’t think you meant tonight!”
“I’m quite all right,” Bunning protested, but he didn’t pull his hands away. It was rather pleasant, he found, to be fussed over. “I’ll warm up in a tick.” He ought to get up and make tea. He would, in a minute or two.
Søndergaard turned Bunning’s chapped and reddened hands over in his and tutted. “Did you beat them?”
Bunning was shocked. “The penguins? No! What do you take me for?”
“The sheets,” Søndergaard explained patiently. “You have to beat them, once they’re frozen. I have a padded stick for the purpose.”
“Ah. No. Not yet. I’ll go back out and take care of them directly.”
“First it is my turn to ply you with tea and brandy.” Søndergaard raised Bunning’s knuckles to his lips and kissed them, a gesture so casually extraordinary that Bunning could hardly believe it had actually happened, and then he dropped his hands and went swiftly to prepare the kettle. “And I will provide you with some thicker gloves. I will also prepare a seaweed-free stew with which to reward you for your labours, and then we will have a fine domestic evening of chess. Good?”
“Well, you’re feeling chipper again, aren’t you? Yes, good,” said Bunning, still rather dazed. “Oh, hang on. Not good. I’ve other plans for the evening, I’m afraid.”
Søndergaard turned away from the stove to shoot him a sceptical look. “Certainly, if you prefer not to play…”
“I’d love to, dear boy, but there’s a more urgent matter I need to attend to first.”
“Yes. Teaching you Morse. Properly. I won’t have you wintering out here without any way to communicate back and forth—if nothing else, we can set down a few common phrases and assign letters to them so that you won’t have to translate and spell them all out.”
Søndergaard considered it. “A code within a code?”
“If you like.”
“Why should I bother, when V seems to have been sufficient to summon you?”
“Well,” said Bunning. “Perhaps I might have something with more nuance to communicate to you, at some point.”
“Such as...oh, I don’t know. ‘Please may I come round for a visit, the junior governor’s assistant is banging on again about his heroic days as the bloody Balliol cricket captain and I’m going to fling myself into the sea if I can’t get away from him for an afternoon,’ that sort of thing.”
“You may always come round for a visit,” Søndergaard told him. “Especially if flinging yourself into the sea is the alternative. So I don’t see that you need a special code for that. Still, if it amuses you.”
“Oh, but you know,” said Bunning. “Some days you might prefer the company of your penguins, what? Rather defeats the purpose of having an island entirely to yourself if you’ve got a meddling Englishman randomly popping over for tea and...and...well, I mean to say, we should have a code for ‘Thanks ever so, old chap, but I’m not in the mood for callers just now, I’ll fling you into the sea myself if you try it,’ shouldn’t we?”
Søndergaard didn’t reply. He poured out a mug of tea and added a generous splash of brandy to it, then brought it over and placed it into Bunning’s hands, wrapping his own firmly around them just as Bunning had done to him the day before. “There will be no flinging,” he said simply. “You are welcome at any time, my friend. At any time. I am always glad of your company. Drink your tea, and put on my coat and gloves when you go out to tackle the laundry. Your own things are too wet, and you will take a bad chill.” He nodded once, then went back to the stove to pour his own tea.
Bunning was silenced. He felt that he ought to be making a joke of some sort, but nothing came to mind. The swelling tenderness he’d been struggling with all day was back. It was so unmanageable now that he could think of nothing to do with it but take it outside, so he gulped his tea as soon as it was cool enough, then put on Søndergaard’s things to go out and try to beat some of his confusion into the frozen laundry.
The devilish Jackie Cooper struck again when Bunning brought the washing back in, and forced his way into the hide once more. This time Søndergaard broke into a long lecture in Danish, which Bunning suspected was mainly for show; even if the penguin understood more of it than Bunning did, it seemed to quite enjoy the attention, and shrieked back at Søndergaard enthusiastically. Finally Søndergaard did pick it up and eject it once more—but not before giving it a few furtive morsels from the stew ingredients he’d been preparing, Bunning noticed.
“You really have made a pet of that one,” Bunning accused him. “I’ll bet you give it the run of the place when I’m not here, don’t you?”
“No, no!” Søndergaard said, then, “Well, yes. On occasion, when he was smaller. He was a very puny little one, and I was worried that he might not put on enough fat to survive the winter—I know, I know, it was unconscionable of me. I have many regrets. But he had already escaped an early death by skua, and I hated to think that it had been all in vain; this one is the offspring of Bogey and Bacall, you see. Or should I say, Bogey and Wayne.”
“Ah!” Bunning hadn’t forgotten them. He’d found himself idly wondering more than once, over the past few months, whether Humphrey and John were still making a go of it. Was it overly prurient to have spent time mulling over what it meant about the so-called laws of nature if penguins could turn sodomite? Could one even apply such a word to penguins? Possibly they were just good friends. “How are the old boys, anyway?” he asked casually. “Did they, er, go their separate ways, then, once the egg had safely hatched?”
“Oh, no,” Søndergaard assured him. “They are still, it seems, very much in love—or at least, they were attentive co-parents, and I still frequently see them in each other’s company. It remains to be seen whether they will attempt to nest together again in the next breeding season. I’ll be watching them with great interest come spring.”
“Well, good, good for them, eh?” Bunning felt ludicrously warm. “So, how’s this stew of yours coming along—and what on earth is that green stuff you’re putting into it? I thought I was promised something entirely without seaweed this time.”
Søndergaard tilted his head and looked at him for a beat, his thin lips twisted into a slight smile, and Bunning felt warmer still. “Tinned spinach,” he said finally. “My supply ship sent me a large case of it for the winter. I will escape the perils of scurvy, and also have the strength to fight off Nazis, if any should appear. Or Blutos.”
Bunning looked blankly at him. Then, “Oh! Popeye. Of course. Yes. With the spinach.”
Søndergaard was still observing him narrowly. “You do not object, I hope, to spinach in your stew?”
“Not in the least,” Bunning lied. “Need any assistance?”
“No. I am strictly a one-man operation in the kitchen. There is a pan of water heating up, here, in case you would like to wash before we eat,” Søndergaard said, and Bunning took the hint, and the water, out to the lean-to.
The stew was, after all, more than passable; one hardly noticed the spinach. Bunning polished off two and a half bowls of the stuff, and nodded off in his chair midway through the last. He didn’t wake until Søndergaard touched his elbow and tried to chivvy him over to the bed.
“What? No, no, no. Wouldn’t dream of it. You haven’t done the washing up already? I was just about to see to that.”
“You are asleep sitting up. Far beyond useless for either washing up or companionship. The bed is yours tonight. I absolutely insist.”
“And I absolutely refuse. Your floor’s remarkably comfortable, you know; far better for sleeping really. Good and...firm.”
“Then,” said Søndergaard, getting that hawkish look that meant he was about to do something clever that would end in checkmate, “if you wish to persist in this misplaced gallantry, you ought to offer me the floor, as it’s the more comfortable situation...”
But Bunning had no interest in trying to outmanoeuvre Søndergaard on this particular playing field. He solved the problem by getting right down on the floor with his coat wrapped around himself, pulling the hood over his head, and feigning deafness until he had fallen asleep again, which didn’t take long.
He felt as if he’d only just lain down when he sat up with a jerk in the pitch darkness, heart racing, roused by a terrible cry. Half asleep, half frozen, entirely stiff and sore, Bunning found himself crawling toward the source of the noise. He still wasn’t really aware of where or when he was until he encountered soft bedding, a damp human shuddering, an arm that thrashed out when he laid hold of it.
“All right,” Bunning said, and then he said it again, many times, until at last the thrashing had ceased and the sounds had died down to ragged breaths and shuddering sighs. “You’re all right, old chap. Just a bad dream.” He was lying right on the bed now, somehow, and it was infinitely more comfortable than the floor, even with a malarial Dane in it.
“I know,” Søndergaard said harshly into the dark. “I know. I’m...sorry. Those horrible tablets. Let me— I’ll— Thank you. I’ll take the floor for a bit now.” His thin chest still heaved.
“Don’t be an utter pillock,” Bunning murmured. He was nearly asleep again already. The bed was quite large enough, and wonderfully warm; he felt like a spoon in a drawer. He enclosed Søndergaard in his arms, pressed his lips to his friend’s moist temple, and slid away from the world again.
Dawn was greying the room when Bunning came awake and opened his eyes to the sharp outline of Søndergaard’s profile. His breathing must have changed, because Søndergaard turned swiftly and raised himself up on one elbow. He didn’t appear to have been recently asleep. He looked down at Bunning with eyes like clear ice, and Bunning had absolutely no idea what to say. His brain was as empty as the glassy shoreline just after a storm, waiting to see what Søndergaard would do.
“You called me a pillock,” Søndergaard said.
“Did I?” Bunning didn’t really recall, but he didn’t doubt it, either. He tucked an arm beneath his head and regarded the Dane.
“You did. Don’t apologise; I’m rather impressed. I did not know you were capable of being so rude.”
“Well. I suppose…” Bunning hesitated. It felt like the highest-stakes game they’d played yet, even more so than when he’d nearly had to take Søndergaard’s island away from him, and he chose his next move with extreme care. “I suppose you must have been behaving like a pillock. I can’t think why I would have said it otherwise. Though I don’t remember a thing about it.”
Søndergaard inhaled audibly. He looked pleased. “And, no doubt, you will have no recollection of invading my territory last night. Yet again.”
“Hmm. At least this time I didn’t bring a flagpole.”
“Did you not?” Søndergaard glanced down, and Bunning burst into a shocked laugh.
“I’m sorry, did you just—I can’t believe you said that. I suppose I did rather walk into it, though. Good god.”
Søndergaard had gone quite red. “Forgive me. That was beyond the beyond. I will atone by making tea.” He got up and busied himself at the stove.
Bunning got up, too, and made use of the outhouse. He cleaned his teeth as thoroughly as he was able, regarded himself gravely in Søndergaard’s little shaving mirror, and told himself not to act like a damned fool, although he was fairly certain he was going to do just that. “Nothing else for it,” he murmured to himself in the mirror, and then he went indoors and got back into the bed.
When Søndergaard came over to hand him a steaming mug of tea, Bunning took it, but set it aside at once and caught at his wrist.
“Søndergaard,” he began. Then he stopped and frowned. “You’ve never told me your Christian name.”
“You’ve never asked,” Søndergaard said. “It’s Aksel.”
“Aksel.” Bunning tried it out. “Aksel Søndergaard?”
“Yes, George Bunning?”
“Come back to bed,” said Bunning. “Please,” and he drew Søndergaard down and kissed him. Søndergaard made a soft startled sound against his mouth and pulled back, and Bunning’s heart leapt in terror, but Søndergaard only looked at him for a moment with his eyes gone wide.
“Are you sure?” he asked Bunning. “Not that I’ve any objections on my own part, but...you are certain, are you, that you wouldn’t rather have the tea?”
“Please,” Bunning said again, and Søndergaard drew in another sharp breath at whatever it was he saw in Bunning’s face then. He nodded once, in that funny birdlike way he had, and then he got right on top of Bunning, straddling his hips, and bent to return the kiss, deeply and thoroughly.
The knot of tenderness that Bunning had been nursing inside his chest seemed to loosen, spilling molten warmth all through him. Søndergaard kissed him, kissed him, kissed him, as though he’d been lost at sea for months, years, and was perishing of thirst. He rocked his whole body down against Bunning’s, and Bunning saw stars.
“Can I,” Bunning said, stroking his hands down his friend’s sides, hesitating at his waist. “That is to say, may I...I need, I want...oh, god.”
“Yes, of course,” Søndergaard said, “yes, yes. Stop being so damned polite,” and he moved Bunning’s hands lower.
“That was,” Bunning said later, when he’d caught breath enough to speak. “I mean to say...good lord. I had no idea. You’ve never said.”
“You’ve never asked.” Søndergaard kissed the bridge of his nose. “And you—I suspected, at times, perhaps, but I told myself...well. We would see. And so we have.”
All the electric tension of their weeks and weeks of gameplay and verbal parrying had seemed to spend itself wildly in their coupling. Søndergaard had shown not the slightest trace of vulnerability or hesitancy; as a lover, apparently, he would be competent, direct, and, Bunning suspected, downright playful, if given headway. Bunning had tried to keep up, but in the end he found that the best he could do was to give himself over to the pleasure of Søndergaard’s clever hands and wicked tongue and attempt to follow his lead.
“Søndergaard,” he said now, very seriously. “Aksel, that is. Look here. I can’t—”
Søndergaard tensed suddenly. “Stop,” he said. “Listen. Is that…”
“Ahoy!” The cry came from outside, and Bunning froze as well. “Rescuing committee at your service, sir! Are you at home? I say, what a queer place to roost! Are these the famous penguins? I say! Jolly little coves, aren’t they?”
He had never hated the junior governor’s assistant more than in that moment.
“I say,” said Søndergaard. “You failed to mention that you had Bertie Wooster squirreled away in your governor’s mansion. How charming.”
“Don’t engage with him,” Bunning warned, leaping up to struggle into his trousers. “Stay here. You’ll be far too amused, and I’ll have to chuck you both in the sea.”
“You seem most determined for one of us to end up in the sea.”
Bunning looked down at Søndergaard stretched out on the bed with his arms crossed lazily beneath his head: lanky and tousle-haired, bare-chested, clearly in a state of having been recently debauched. Bunning didn’t see how he was possibly expected to have to cinch the knot in his chest tight and tuck it away out of sight again. He needed to kiss him again. He wanted to fall to his knees. But he could hear the junior governor’s assistant’s footsteps crunching up the path to the hide now, and he quickly crammed his boots on and donned the heavy carapace of his parka.
“At any time, you said,” Bunning reminded him, turning back at the door. “I may hold you to that.”
“If you like. And if the weather permits.” Søndergaard shrugged. He sounded guarded, Bunning thought. There was no time to fix it. “Well, toodle-pip, or some such thing.”
“Rather,” Bunning agreed. “Study that Morse, will you? Give a shout if you need anything.” He glanced around at the snug and colourful walls of the hide once more, and then he stepped out into the bitter, biting wind of the glaring May morning.
Before he knew it, it was June, full winter, and Bunning had been trapped in King Edward Point by one circumstance or another for weeks.
The launch repairs were held up interminably while the reduced winter maintenance staff recovered from influenza. Official correspondence from Whitehall demanded that he oversee the establishment of a meteorological research station on St Andrews Bay. The whalers at Grytviken were discovered to have been depositing illegal scrap and hazardous waste all up and down the coast and required several very sternly worded memos and, eventually, a formal diplomatic intervention. An expedition of wealthy tourists from America wanted permission to pay a visit to Sir Ernest’s grave and camp nearby in August, and had to be responded to with a polite hint to the effect that they might find the weather more amenable in February.
The June weather was not amenable to anything but pacing back and forth indoors. There’d been storm after storm. Much worse than last winter, the senior governor’s assistant assured him cheerfully.
Bunning fretted. He thought about asking Grytviken if any of their fleet had picked up a forlorn Dane on the northern islands recently, but they’d only just grudgingly capitulated to his demands and agreed to clean up their messes—they would probably spit in his eye if he contacted them again before the spring. He pestered the medical officer for information about the possible long-term effects of recurrent malarial infections, and then wished fervently that he hadn’t.
He cursed himself for not insisting on teaching some Morse to Søndergaard, or at least establishing a rudimentary code system and instructing him to check in at regular intervals. He wasn’t sure what he’d have used it to say at his end, though.
How are your penguins?
Bertie Wooster down with bronchitis. Silence is bliss.
Launch finally operable again.
Food supply holding up? Need more heating oil?
Be back as soon as weather allows.
Please don’t go off with Norwegians again.
In the end he sent all of these messages, at various times of day, knowing it was an act of futility. The crashing silence he received in reply could have meant any of half a dozen disastrous things. More likely it simply meant that Søndergaard still hadn’t a clue how to receive or interpret code over the radio.
There was only one way to find out.
On a clear, frosty day in late June, Bunning boarded his launch with a large case of chopped herring, a basket of netting, and two layers of woollen underwear, and set off for No Man’s Land. The medical officer told him it was madness in these temperatures and that he looked forward to treating the pneumonia he’d bring back with him; at least, he said, he’d been able to acquire a good supply of penicillin for the winter, thank heavens.
Bunning hadn’t even thought to worry about pneumonia in considering all the possible interpretations of Søndergaard’s silence, but he was reassured to hear about the penicillin. He set his course and sped out.
As soon as he got within a quarter mile of the island’s shore, he began attempting a head count of its inhabitants. At first he could only spot ten, and his heart dropped, but then another little cluster came out from behind the rocks: thirteen, now. Bunning scanned the coastline, waiting for another head to pop up. He cut the engine and let himself be carried in on the undercurrent, not wishing to scare them away. He counted again. Still thirteen. Nine adults, and only four juveniles.
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Bunning came ashore and secured the launch as best he could with frozen hands. He went up the path empty-handed, clumsy with the cold, once again leading what seemed to him this time—was he imagining it?—a more subdued penguin parade. He knocked at the familiar door.
Søndergaard was perched on a chair in front of his stove, feet up, looking very startled but otherwise entirely well. He had a book in one hand and a bowl in his lap, and with his other hand he was feeding morsels of something from the bowl to Jackie Cooper, who was tucked cosily into the crook of his left arm.
“I might have known,” said Bunning.
Søndergaard exclaimed something in Danish and leapt up, spilling Jackie Cooper and the bowl of snacks onto the floor and causing the penguin to loudly complain. “What are you doing here?”
“Am I not welcome?” Bunning briefly wondered if he had it in him to make the bitter journey back to the residence straightaway before it grew dark again, and whether perhaps it wouldn’t be better to just put out to sea and abandon himself to the icy waves, but Søndergaard was already embracing him, taking his face in his hands, kissing him on one cheek and then the other.
“I’m sorry!” said Søndergaard. “You startled me. I—gode Gud, you are frozen—I wasn’t expecting to see you again until the spring, if then…” He stepped back. “But I am being overly familiar. Forgive me.”
“No—” Bunning caught at him before he moved out of reach. “I’d return the familiarity, but I can’t feel my face just yet. Did you really think I wouldn’t come? I sent messages.”
“Ah. And I’ve been studying, too, in case of just such an eventuality, but there was an unfortunate accident with the radio.”
“Was there?” Bunning didn’t care about the radio; Søndergaard had his face in his hands again, and was applying his lips to various parts of it.
“Jackie Cooper shat on it,” Søndergaard confessed. “He is turning into a rather bad penguin. I’m afraid he has more of his mother in him than one might have hoped.”
“Well, there’s nature over nurture for you,” Bunning murmured into his neck. “Not to mention the fact that he’s also outrageously spoiled…”
“Yes, I know,” Søndergaard said sorrowfully. They looked down at Jackie Cooper, now happily hoovering up the spilled snacks. Søndergaard sighed and picked up the little penguin and put him outside. Then he turned his attention back to Bunning, who was thawing out just enough to begin to shiver. “You really are frozen,” he said crossly. “What were you thinking?”
Bunning wasn’t about to tell him what he’d been thinking. Søndergaard’s ice-coloured eyes seemed to see straight through him, in any case.
“We must get you out of these clothes,” Søndergaard said, confirming it. “I should check you for frostbite. Also, skin to skin contact is the proper first aid for hypothermia, isn’t it?”
“I think that’s a myth,” Bunning couldn’t help saying. “But it would only be good science to put it to the test, I suppose,” he added hastily.
Søndergaard was already backing him toward the bed, darting warm clever hands inside the layers of his clothing, and didn’t bother replying.
“Come back with me,” said Bunning, who believed in facing things head on. He felt as though Søndergaard had delved straight through his chest and broken it wide open. He would never be able to put everything back neatly in its place now. “For the winter. Just for the winter. That’s what I came to ask. I meant to, before.”
“Oh,” said Søndergaard. “Did you? Well. But—”
“We can bring the penguins with us. Plenty of them in King Edward Cove, year round. It’s a natural shelter from the winds. And the residence is half empty; you’d be welcome there as my guest. No one will bother you—not even me, if you prefer your solitude. If you try to stick it out here and the storms keep up the way they have been so far, you’re bound to lose some of them.”
Søndergaard propped his sharp chin on Bunning’s shoulder. “Penguins do die, you know,” he said. “I’ve lived here nearly three years. I’ve become too attached to these ones, but...it does happen. It’s just nature. Some of them are lost.”
“Well, they needn’t be,” said Bunning. “Not these. Not now. You might give them a chance. It’s hardly safe for you out here, either. And with no radio, even...I’d hate to think of you having to resort to flagging down one of those whalers again if I couldn’t get out here with more supplies.”
“I would never, never resort to flagging down a whaling ship again.” Søndergaard shuddered against him. “But really, my dear friend, you don’t have to worry about me. I am very adequately supplied this year, and not so inexperienced as I was. You are exceptionally kind, but I am, after all, pretty indestructible.”
“I’m not asking out of kindness,” Bunning snapped.
“No?” Søndergaard lifted up his head to look at him. “Then why are you asking?”
Bunning felt as though he were down to two pawns and a queen. “All right. Fine. I don’t know how I’ll survive the winter, if I can’t get out here on occasion.” He hesitated, then went all in. “To be with you.”
Søndergaard’s light eyes really were indescribable, something far beyond piercing; they ought not to be allowed. “You have also grown too attached, then.”
It seemed like a refusal, and Bunning suddenly couldn’t remember how to take in air, but then Søndergaard sighed and laid his head back down on his chest. “Well, for that matter, so have I. I suppose that is also nature.”
“Hmm. You’re hardly one of the great romantics, Aksel,” Bunning told him, but at least, he found, he could breathe again.
“On the contrary, George.” Was he being mocked? He didn’t care. “That’s by far the most romantic declaration I’ve made in...well, ever, if it comes to that.”
“Oh.” Bunning threaded his fingers possessively into Søndergaard’s unkempt hair. This was a wild thing, he reminded himself sternly, on loan to him; not his to claim. But they did fit together remarkably well.
“I’m difficult to live with, in close proximity,” Søndergaard said warningly.
“Yes,” said Bunning. “I expect so. Likewise, if I’m honest.”
“I frequently suffer from nightmares. Bad ones. Not only when under the influence of malaria tablets.”
“I’m not surprised.” Bunning had read up on conditions in the Java POW camps. He enfolded Søndergaard rather more fiercely. “Had a few of those myself, in my time.”
“Yes, I suppose that you would have.” Søndergaard lapsed into silence. Then, “And this is only until the spring. Sooner, if it becomes intolerable and if the weather lets up.”
“Naturally. You’ve an excellent situation for yourself here; hate to see you give it up. Only for the winter months.”
“Well, then,” said Søndergaard. He pressed his lips to Bunning’s chest, just over the spot where his heart now gladly throbbed unfettered, surely betraying him. Then he sat up. “How do you propose to transport fourteen penguins a hundred miles by sea in an open motor launch?”
The penguins found it all great fun. They agreed enthusiastically to the plan of luring them into the motor launch with pieces of herring, and hopped straight overboard again the moment they had a bit of fish in their beaks, only to be offered more fish in order to continue the game. The tall human shouted; the other one chased after them and waved his arms about. It was a wonderful day.
“There’s always Plan B,” Bunning said doubtfully, eyeing the basket of netting, but he didn’t care for the idea of keeping the penguins captive and distressed for even a couple of hours, and he could tell that Søndergaard felt the same. Bunning knew he was asking a dreadful lot of him as it was.
“Or we could leave them all behind,” Søndergaard said. “Terrible beasts. I should have taken up skua-watching instead.” He began to pace the beach, tossing stones into the sea, and Jackie Cooper toddled rapidly after him as if he were on a string. Two others—Bogart and Wayne, probably—followed Jackie, and the rest joined the parade eagerly, all in a flap to see what was going to happen next.
“Oh!” said Bunning. “Here, come back. Get in the boat. Let’s try this—I won’t go far if it doesn’t work.”
Søndergaard climbed aboard, and Bunning pushed off from shore and started the motor. The penguins gathered themselves into a tight, alarmed cluster and cried out as one in apparent dismay as the launch began to putter slowly away. The flock conferred briefly amongst themselves, and then, led by Jackie Cooper, all fourteen of them dived into the water in hot pursuit and popped up into the launch, one by one.
Fourteen penguins and two men in a small motor launch was a lot, as it turned out. Bunning glanced round every now and again and was very glad to be the one at the helm. The penguins seemed bewildered, but they were content to direct their complaints and concerns to Søndergaard and allow him to pet them and feed them far too much herring. Several of them were sick. All of them decorated the deck liberally with liquid guano. The noise and the smell were intense.
“I can’t imagine why you prefer penguins at a distance,” Søndergaard called out cheerfully. “Sorry about your nice boat! Are you quite sure you don’t want to switch places for a while?”
“I’d sooner swim back to the residence,” Bunning called back. “Whose ridiculous idea was this, anyway?”
At last the entire flock fell asleep in a heap, exhausted by the drama and by their enormous unexpected lunch. Bunning increased their speed, and Søndergaard came up to stand behind him at the helm. “After all, this is quite pleasant,” Søndergaard mused, tucking his hands into Bunning’s coat pockets and his chin over Bunning’s shoulder. “It’s good to have a change of scenery. I suppose it was about time for an adventure.”
“Well, you say that now,” Bunning told him, forgetting that he was supposed to make it seem an enticing proposition. “You haven’t had to try and fend off breakfast conversation with the junior governor’s assistant yet.”
“Oh, I’m looking forward to that especially,” Søndergaard assured him. “I shall eviscerate him both verbally and at the chessboard—does he play? Or perhaps it’s better if I conveniently lose my command of the English language whenever I’m in the company of your subordinates. I don’t wish to cause any more diplomatic incidents between Britain and Denmark. But look, Bunning, ah, look there—spectacular, isn’t it?”
Bunning turned his head to watch him drinking in the sight of the South Georgia fjords at midwinter, eyes alight, feathery flags of red-gold escaping from his cap and whipping around his face in the sharp June wind. He could do nothing but agree.